The New York Times ran an article yesterday on the impressive growth of vocations among the Dominicans in the UK, which the reporter attributes to the order’s self-conscious embrace of tradition, especially the familiar habit. This connection appears to be a revelation to the reporter and forms the thrust of his story, as though he wasn’t aware of forty years of evidence to prove the point. It got me thinking about two religious orders that to varying degrees are active locally: the Dominicans, famously at their priory in Madeira on the campus of St. Gertrude Catholic Church, and the Jesuits, who serve St. Xavier parish downtown and St. X high school in Finneytown.
Blessed Cardinal Newman supposedly quipped, “The surest sign of life is growth,” and by that measure applied locally the Dominicans are very much alive, as the priory hosts a growing number of novices and your priests. Their appeal is straightforward: traditional orthodoxy — visibly represented by the habit — and communal asceticism. It’s the appeal they’ve had for virtually all of their 800 years of existence (with some notable, temporary lapses in the confusion after Vatican II).
And the Jesuits? Not so much. They exist mainly in the imagination of alumni from the high school. It is rare to find young or new members of the Society of Jesus in Cincinnati. In the last decade, the parish downtown featured a dynamic pastor who was literally the “poster boy” for vocations, as photographs of him in very nonclerical running gear were featured in promotional material designed to attract new members. His parish experienced an initial burst of growth, but it always seemed anchored in his admittedly engaging personality. He left town for destinations unknown a couple of years ago, and I am told he abandoned the order to pursue a career as a fitness coach. The parish has resumed its sleepier existence.
Is there a moral to the story? It is abundantly clear that a deliberate, authentic, and visible embrace of orthodoxy and tradition are the keys to vocational growth, but what might be less so is the effect that has on the “recruits” themselves, irrespective of their numbers. Call it truth in advertising, but a vocational effort that shows a man in a habit — or a collar — is going to attract someone drawn to a life of service, subordination, and the pursuit of holiness. A vocations program featuring as its centerpiece a man in running gear — or civilian clothes in general — is probably going to attract a man drawn to something else.